Hop on the road southwest from Sarajevo and the rolling, green landscape dries up, becoming something rockier and more reminiscent of Colorado. The Neretva snakes under and alongside the highway. Vineyards emerge. You’d think the sun grew a thousand times larger, the heat is so magnified.
Mostar seems older than the home base behind us. Its narrow, cobblestone streets require some careful maneuvering; even dry, their soapy limestone is a formidable challenge. The river bisects town, and the landmark bridge, connecting two original towers at each of its sides, stands proudly intact after its 2004 UNESCO reboot. Just as its been for centuries, young men hover over its rails and take the 78-foot drop into the mere 15 feet of water below. It’s theatrical, and terrifying. We grab lunch at the riverside, attempting to catch some video. When the sun goes down, old town becomes irresistibly romantic.
Initially, there was a typical sense of indifference to us as foreigners. But when we made our way to the river bank and started to take things in, we noticed Mostar had wrapped its arms around us.
The city takes its name from the word most, meaning bridge. The mostari, or bridge keepers, are its people. And apparently, they live to swim, hang out on the river bank, and jump off of things. (Is it too late to change my life plan?) The annual bridge diving competition was in swing, and thousands of people from all over Bosnia and the world were gathered to swim, dive off the rocks, ingest healthy amounts of beer, dance, and watch as the most skilled of the locals—and some brave visitors—jumped the bridge. A graceful, eagle-approaching-its kill form seemed to earn the highest marks. Mostaris on the bank were unbelievably friendly, upbeat, and generous; food and drink were shared freely. I am cheered on by a chorus of strangers each time I dive off the bank, and despite my significant fear of heights, find myself jumping—or, rather, falling—off the 45-foot practice platform. Of all moments in my experience in this country, I have never felt more welcome, more infected by positivity, than I do now.
Sure, there’s no shortage of ethnic tension here. The city’s Bosniak and Croat majorities defiantly blare the adhan and church bells at each other throughout the day. Telephone poles are plastered with obituary flyers, always in Muslim and Catholic pairs, to illustrate an equality of loss. Elections haven’t been held here in eight years, though they were supposed to in 2008 and 2014, due to strong nationalist agendas in both parties and Croatian meddling in local politics. But there’s this sense of enduring local pride here that I don’t feel in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, or Tuzla. It’s joyous. It’s hopeful. It’s the stuff that civil society is built of.